Archives for posts with tag: travel
IMG_20170712_124616.jpg

Wildflowers and mountains, very Bakuriani

I FINALLY made it to Bakuriani! It’s odd that I’d never been there before, as it’s just up the mountain from Borjomi, one of my favorite weekend getaways. I went there a different way than I usually travel, though; I was teaching at a summer camp held there. It was, to be honest, a pretty sweet gig (despite some incredibly rude kids): as a teacher I wasn’t responsible for the kids outside my class hours, so I got to have plenty of free time to read novels, go on walks, and catch up on Jane the Virgin. Bakuriani is primarily famous as a ski resort, but they’ve done quite well in marketing themselves as a summer destination, too. The place was full of summer camps and families relaxing outside the heat of Tbilisi. Though room rates are cut in half for summer, it looked like the hotel was making a fairly good profit selling the campers Coca-Cola and ice cream. It was on average about 10*C cooler in Bakuriani than back in Tbilisi, making the weather just lovely. We were lucky to have sunshine for the majority of our time there, and somehow I didn’t spot any mosquitoes!

Since camp was keeping the hotels quite full, I actually spent time in three different hotels: Hotel Ritza, Hotel Ana-Maria, and Hotel Edemi.  None of them were perfect, but all of them were quite good–especially for the summer season prices. I was definitely comfortable. They all seem to be managed by the same people, but Ana-Maria was the most recently renovated.

IMG_20170717_081932

View of Aghmashenebeli Street from below, where Hotels Ritza (the big yellow one left of center), Ana-Maria, and Edemi are located.

Since I was at summer camp, I didn’t try any of the restaurants in town, eating with the camp at Ritza. The strawberry-apple jam and (home made?) pelmeni were excellent (though pelmeni for breakfast was hard on my stomach). Other meals were less impressive, but nothing was disgusting or anything. Likewise, I can’t comment on transportation to Bakuriani, as I traveled on the camp bus, though I hear the train up from Borjomi is wonderful.

IMG_20170715_202734

Thunderstorms rolling in over the mountains at dusk

Everyone working in the little shops in town was incredibly friendly and helpful (not always the norm), and I really liked walking around, poking in various places, and exploring. The town layout was pretty simple, so I never worried about getting lost. One nice little walk was to a suspended footbridge behind the “Bakuriani Resorts” hotel (I think that’s near the “Otsdakhutianebi” ski slope. Visiting the Didveli ski slope and taking the cable car up was also fun, but be warned–5 GEL only gets you halfway up; you’ll need to spend another 5 GEL for the next cable car further to the top (I didn’t…this time). There’s quite a lot to do in Bakuriani (I didn’t have time to do it all): it has one of the few cinemas outside of Tbilisi, there’s an amusement park and a botanical garden, and you can rent horses, bicycles or ATVs to go for a ride. The scenery is beautiful, and in early July, at least, all the meadows were full of wildflowers. Bakuriani is definitely a nice place to escape the summer heat and relax–I hope to go back sometime soon, maybe I’ll even try skiing.

I kept delaying this post as I tried to get the names of villages from a friend who was keeping track, but that never happened and it’s now embarrassingly late to post about last summer’s travels, so let’s call this an anniversary “throw-back” post, with a little less detail than originally planned. This trip was to the Lechkhumi portion of the Raja-Lechkumi and Kvemo Svaneti Region of Georgia which is in the north and center-west of the country and part of the Greater Caucasus. I visited in July 2016. #TBT

 

We started the weekend with the drive to Kutaisi, from whence we went into Lechkhumi via the village of Rioni, mostly following the Rioni river. This route was beautiful, but the roads were bad (we had car trouble in a Delica!), so I wouldn’t recommend it for independent travel. We stopped at a few waterfalls along the road, and visited a variety of village churches, some with beautiful frescoes. One of the last towns we stopped in featured a cemetery with nicely decorated gravestones and a treehouse which was fun to climb. Down the road a bit was a beautiful panoramic view, where we could apparently see into Svaneti. The only village name I remember on this route is Lailashi, which I remember because we ran out of time to go there. At the end of the day, we arrived in Tsageri to a cheap home-stay that let some members of our group camp in the yard for free while the rest of us paid for beds in the house.

The next day, we woke up and headed to the Tsageri museum which was EXCELLENT–one of the best curated museums I’ve visited in Georgia. It housed taxidermy, ancient artifacts (coins, statues, and weapons), photography, and other bits and bobs all labelled in understandable English. The director of the museum (I think…the man who showed us around) is also, apparently, an artist and he showed us some of his work as well. The whole town of Tsageri was really impressive. The locals clearly care for their town; everything looked well-maintained and tidy. I’ve since met someone who grew up in Tsageri and he agreed with my conclusion, saying people only leave because there are so few jobs there. I’ve seen plans to re-build the airport and build a football stadium to international standards in the town, so maybe that trend will stop.

Our next stop was the fortress overlooking Tsageri, which guarded the crossroads between the different principalities in the medieval period. At this time, the weather was starting to turn for the worse, so we spent a lot of time fiddle-faddling around deciding whether or not to go up to the summit of Khvamli Mountain. We actually went halfway up, decided to turn around and visit Tskaltubo instead, and then went back all the way to the top the next time. The view from Khvamli was incredible, and the clouds causing the poor weather made the view mystical and magical, but I really could have done without all the indecision and time-wasting. We did end up with some nice photos, though.

Then we were back on the road to Kutaisi via Tskaltubo and then home to Tbilisi, tired after a busy weekend and a lot of fresh air. Unlike the other road, this road was very good quality. It you’re flying into Kutaisi and want to visit the mountains, Tsageri and Khvamli might be a good, accessible option. It’s certainly a beautiful corner of Georgia.

Having spent most of May injured and recuperating, I was itching to get out of the city and be active now that I was feeling better, but I was sure that my endurance had taken a hit from not doing much other than stretching for a month. A friend posted on Facebook that he was organizing a group hike to Lagodekhi, and it was suitable for beginners, so it seemed like it could be the perfect thing for me to get back at it. I’ve heard Lagodekhi is beautiful, but I’d never been there, and it was supposed to be a fairly flat and easy trail. Perfect! But the weather foiled our plans. Weather reports were divided as to whether or not it was raining in Lagodekhi at the time of our departure, but there had been 3 days of rain before, so the trail would have been MUDDY. We decided as a group to go instead to Ateni in Shida Kartli, where the weather was supposed to be lovely. One of my co-workers has a village house in Ateni, and she always brings us the most wonderful fruit from her orchard, so it seemed like a fine idea to me.

Ateni isn’t a very long drive from Tbilisi, so that’s definitely a mark in its favor. It took us a few tries to locate the right bridge in the village to start our hike from, but once we were there we began by following the road through the village up the hill easily enough (the entire hike followed that road, though “road” became a less accurate description the further we went). I was off to a good start, feeling strong on my way up the hill. I started to feel it right before the trail split, though. There was a fortress (I believe it was Veres Tsikhe) off to the left, and we were given the option to either go see the fortress, or take a little break. Though I love fortresses, I knew I should conserve my energy, so I sat and took a break with another girl in the group.

The others returned, citing steep walls and snakes (!) and we were off on our hike again. This section of the trail was much harder than before as it was pretty much straight up the mountain, and I was definitely starting to get tired. Every time I thought we’d reached the summit, another hill appeared beyond the meadow. One time we even left the trail and were climbing a hill so steep the ground was nearly right in front of my face. After I while I was only managing to trudge 3 steps before taking a mini-break, with my hip flexors aching all the way (that was new! Usually it’s my thighs that burn from hiking).

I thought we’d reached the top, but was confronted with yet another hill before we reached the church. But, you know what? I was done. I’ve never done that before…given up and stopped. But this hike was much harder than I had planned, and I was starting to wonder if I would have the strength to get back down the mountain. I’ve also seen plenty of Georgian churches at this point. I was in a safe and comfortable place, so I told the others to go on without me, and I waited in that nice mountain meadow. I made sure the friend I had come with and the hike leader knew where I was, and I dropped a pin on Google maps and sent my location to a friend not in the group, and then I just laid down in that meadow and rested. Actually, I had a really great time there, watching the clouds and thinking. I initially wished I had brought my Kindle, or that my phone had gotten internet reception, but in the end I only got bored about 10 minutes before the others returned. It took them more than 2 and a half hours to get up and back (they had estimated 45 minutes), so it was a difficult hike. Apparently that section of trail was really muddy and slippery, making it even more of a challenge. Staying was 100% the right decision for me at that time. When they returned, some of the others told me they wished they had stayed with me, and even those who didn’t mind the hike said that the view wasn’t so much better to justify the difficult walk (some of them may have been trying to make me feel better, but I don’t think all of them were).

IMG_20170611_154418

The church I did not visit atop the mountain I did not climb.

IMG_20170611_170938

The sights I saw on this trip.

Refreshed, I kept up with the others and was able to chat and socialize on the way down, which seemed so much shorter! The scenery was pretty and I didn’t re-injure myself, so even though I had to give up, I’m calling the day a success.

Note: I believe the fortress I didn’t visit was Veres Tsikhe, and though I’m pretty sure I located the “road” we followed on the map, I can’t find a name for the church at the top.

Now that the high season is upon us, I’ll tell you the things that everyone else has forgotten to mention.

20170516_134414-COLLAGE

Clockwise from top left: A marshrutka station in Sagarejo, Former roommate S models some Borjomi water while hiking in Borjomi, a zebra crossing (photo from Jim (for another project, but fits here perfectly), my former host sister Ani and I in “church clothes”, some delicious but heavy adjaruli khachapuri.

#1 Don’t cross the street! Of course you have to get to the other side of the street, but don’t just traipse across. If it looks difficult to cross, that’s because it is. The busiest streets will have either underpasses or pedestrian bridges every few blocks. Look for those; it’s worth it. If there isn’t one, the designated crossing place will be painted on the road with zebra stripes, but it’s much, much better to find one at a traffic light, and even then you have to be careful. The ones unattached to traffic lights are mostly decorative in practice, and the one on the Embankment near Dry Bridge is basically nothing (go up the hill to the park and cross the bridge itself to the flea market)

#2 Go easy on the Georgian food the first few days. Georgian food is amazing, and probably part of the reason you chose to come here, but “Tbilisi Tummy” is common and will really put a damper on your travels, so go easy at first. Many of the iconic Georgian dishes (I’m looking at you, khachapuri and khinkali) are greasy and heavy and hard to digest, and not all places will be up to the hygiene standards you may be used to, so let yourself adjust for a few days before you hit the supra hard. There is plenty of good, light fare available (even in a typical Georgian restaurant). If you want to gird your digestive system with fermented foods, Georgian pickles are delicious (especially jonjoli, my favorite!) and Georgian yogurt (matsoni) is cheap, tasty, and easily available.

#3 Pack a scarf and a skirt. A large number of the tourist attractions are churches, and almost all Georgian Orthodox churches require that women wear a skirt and have their hair covered. Some of them provide various wraps at the door and some don’t; some of those provided are clean… You’ll be much more comfortable and likely to see what you came for if you just bring your own. Some churches don’t mind, some are even stricter (I’ve heard stories that Gergeti Sameba in Kazbegi won’t let people wear glasses inside?!?), but scarf and skirt is the norm. For the fellows–no shorts.

#4 Smile? Many Americans’ default facial position is a smile, and that’s not the case in Georgia. If you want to attract the attention of someone across the bar (/metro car), smiling is a good way to do it. If you’d rather be left alone, relaxing your face will reduce (though may not eliminate) unwanted attention.

#5 If you choose to use the marshrutka system, have faith in it. I know the marshrutka system seems like it will never work, but it really does work fairly efficiently. It’s by far the cheapest way to get around, though there will be a certain amount of standing by the road and waiting. Be patient. If you are on the right route (check with some locals if you’re nervous about that, but honestly there aren’t very many roads, so it’s unlikely they took a detour), it will come eventually. If the marshrutka isn’t your style, there’s no shame in that; there are also trains and buses, or you can hire a taxi (or rent a car, or hitchhike, or join an organized excursion). Don’t expect the marshrutka to be something it’s not, and you’ll avert a lot of disappointment.

#6. Stay hydrated. It can get hot here. Even though it may be cool in the mountains, you’re at a higher elevation. You’re probably going to be drinking some wine, and maybe even some chacha. You might be walking/hiking a lot. Bottled water is cheap (starting at 50 tetri/bottle) and sold everywhere, and Georgia is famous for its mineral water. Most towns even have free public drinking fountains, and there are lots of mountain springs (the water is usually OK to drink, but make your own risk assessment based on your health, background, and location). You’ll be a much happier camper if you aren’t thirsty.

Any others with experience travelling here have some advice I missed?

Any questions, class?

I went to Tao-Klarjeti a few weeks ago. If you chose to take a break and look for that on a map, you may be very confused at this point. Tao-Klarjeti isn’t the name of anywhere anymore. It was the region where the Bagrationi dynasty of Georgian monarchs were from, and now it’s part of Turkey; the places we visited were mostly in Artvin province. It’s a pretty popular destination for Georgians to go on tours, but not somewhere many Americans visit, so when a friend asked if I wanted to join, I said “Why not?”. We went on an organized, but not guided, tour. We had two mini vans full of people, including a professional driver for each, and the organizer. The drivers were very good and did not suffer from lead foot or road rage, and the organizer had a route worked out and pre-arranged cheap hotels. We paid 270 GEL/person for a 3-day trip, which included everything except food–we didn’t stop at restaurants or stores (though one evening we went to a teahouse and bought some olives and baklava); we brought pretty much everything with us from Tbilisi, and ate in the car en route.

We left Tbilisi early in the morning and made for the Vale-Türkgözü border crossing. There was a long line of trucks, but very few passenger cars, so they let us skip ahead and we crossed quite quickly. It was interesting to see the change as we crossed the border. The geography in the region was the same on the Georgian and Turkish sides, but nonetheless it was obvious that we were in a different country–the cemeteries were different, the houses were a different style, and there were tractors and mechanized agriculture all around us. As we drove further into Turkey we got into higher and higher mountains. There was still quite a bit of snow, and we were even caught in a blizzard in the mountains between Ardahan and Savsat. There was some sort of nature reserve or natural park in the mountains, and it reminded me of the American West–pine forests, rugged mountains, and well-maintained picnic areas. As we drove through a village on the Savsat side, one whole village was outside (despite the poor weather) having some sort of festival.

Late in the afternoon, we made our first stop: Tbeti Monastery, the first of many old, abandoned Georgian churches in various states of ruin. Apparently this church survived fairly well for a long time, but was “exploded” in the mid-20th century…sounds like there’s a story there, but I didn’t get any more information than that. One of the villagers speaks some Georgian and runs a little souvenir shop (and paid toilet) next to the site. Next, we stopped at Savsat Kalesi, the former citadel of the town of Savsat (in Georgian, შავშეთი/Shavsheti) which was kind of a big deal back in the Georgian era. There are archeological excavations ongoing sponsored by the Turkish government. The fortress has some typically Georgian features–there’s a tone (traditional Georgian bread kiln) and kvevri (Georgian amphorae), and a “pharmacy” very similar to the one at Vardzia. Then we took a break from historical sites and clambered around “Hell’s Canyon” (Cehennem Deresi Kanyonu). It was a nice enough canyon, I suppose, but as I’ve spent a lot of time in the American West, a canyon in and of itself is nothing so impressive. This was the place where it became abundantly clear that our organizer’s footwear recommendations were way off the mark. She had recommended galoshes or rain boots, which I don’t have, so I wore what was closest: snow boots. Even though my snow boots are made by an outdoors/hiking brand, they are absolute clodhoppers, and I had real difficulty maneuvering through the canyon and leaping from stone to stone. I also picked up a good few kilos of mud in the treads, making me kind of miserable. But I made it through. Our next stop was the fortress Artanuji / Gevhernik. We approached from behind, and it was perched atop a sheer rock face. When my friend told me we were climbing up there, I joked about not having brought any rock climbing gear. We walked around to the other side, and though there was a path (of a sort) it was still tough climbing in the aforementioned clodhoppers. It was worth the climb, as the fortress was filled with wildflowers, and was really, really beautiful.

DSC_0091

Artanuji Fortress

After one more stop at Dolishane Church, which is supposed to have lovely frescoes, but I couldn’t tell you as it was pitch black by the time we got there, we returned to the town of Savsat and stayed in a pension run by a guy called Jemal, who is the widower of a Georgian woman and loves all things Georgia. The place was basic, but clean (until we tramped mud through), and the beds were comfy and showers were warm.

The next day, I ignored any further fashion advice and switched to my trail runners, so I had no further climbing issues. First, we drove up a narrow, windy, frightening/beautiful mountain road to Porta monastery.  We saved some time getting there by scrambling up a stream bed rather than following the path. This was once a massive complex; now much of it is buried, but bits are still accessible. The ground we stood on was once one of the upper roofs. Apparently a large piece of the dome (which is still above ground) had fallen just a few days before our visit, so I was rather wary of exploring very much. It was also interesting that the village is still inhabited, and though it’s tiny and remote, electric lines do reach up there.

DSC_0139

You can understand why bits of Porta are falling down, right?

We also visited the village spring to refill our water bottles with cool fresh water. The Georgians said it had some special health/religious properties, but I was mostly happy to get a cool drink.

Our next stop was Artvin Castle, which is now part of a Turkish military base (so no photos). At first they told us we couldn’t enter, but then a nice young soldier who spoke very good English came to escort us. On the road to our next destination, there was a distinct change in the landscape. The area around Savsat was one of the lushest, greenest places I’ve visited (we drove past a hotel called Green Valley: they were not lying), and as we went further on, the landscape become much more arid (and brown). We visited many churches this afternoon: Ishan Monastery, which was closed for restoration–the Georgian government has protested the way the Turks were renovating, allegedly frescoes were destroyed, but they seem to be back at work; Haho/Hahuli which is now used as a mosque; there are supposed to be good frescoes, but it was locked so we couldn’t see; and the Oshki Monastery, which was relatively intact except for the lack of roof, and also had an academy. Our last stop of the evening was  Tortum Waterfall, the highest in Turkey, which had rather nice tourism infrastructure and cafes. We were due to spend the night in the town of Yusufeli, so we wandered around a bit, bought some edible souvenirs, and met and chatted with a Georgian Turk in a teahouse. We then proceeded on to our accommodation at Hotel Agara, which was lovely, and a sakalmakhe (საკალმახე, trout restaurant) as well as a hotel. This day was particularly poignant as much of the area surrounding these places, apparently including the town of Yusufeli, will soon be flooded with the completion of planned dam projects. I’m not sure about the status of the historical sites themselves, though the ones on mountaintops are likely to be fine.

On the third and final day of our trip, we began at the Tekkale/Otkhta Monastery (the “Monastery of Four”), then visited Esbek, which was interesting as it was the ruins of a village, rather than a religious site. Apparently snakes like it there, though, so we had to be careful. There was also quite a view down into the valley. Then we visited Bana, my favorite of the old churches. It was really, really, ruined, but in a very picturesque way. Apparently its current gravity-defying structure is the result of being used as a military installation in the Crimean and Russo-Turkish wars. It’s also located on a small rise in the middle of a broad valley surrounded on all sides by colorful mountains, giving you stunning views in all directions.

IMG_0867

Ruins at Bana

One of the mini-vans got a flat tire at Bana, so we had to stop for repairs before we went on our way home. Along the road we saw the source of the Mtkvari, the river through Tbilisi. Our last stop was Seytan Castle (allegedly the setting of Georgia’s most famous epic poem, The Knight in the Panther Skin).

DSC_0088

You remember “Where’s Waldo?”, right? This is “Where’s Em?” at Seytan Castle

We crossed back to Georgia at the Çıldır-Aktaş-Kartsakhi crossing point, which the internet says is closed, but seemed to work mostly fine for us (one of our drivers had a little trouble and was taken for interrogation because he had the same name as someone on the deportation list…it got sorted out, though). We returned to Tbilisi late at night, tired from a jam-packed three days of sightseeing.

I can’t write a post about traveling in Turkey and ignore the security/terrorism question. I thought long and hard before I chose to take this trip, and asked a lot of questions. I’m lucky that I have friends who are experts on security in the region, and family who support me in making these kinds of decisions. Just before I went to Tao-Klarjeti, the US State Department updated its Turkey travel warning, and it is kind of grim, so I debated this trip a lot. On the one hand, I really don’t want to get hurt, and on the other hand, I believe that staying at home, not going anywhere or doing anything out of fear is playing into the hands of terrorists. In summary: this particular area neither has much of a Kurdish population, nor is it near Syria, so in those ways it’s not a likely target. This is also a very sparsely populated area: the most populous town we spent any time in was Artvin, with a population of 25,771. I could count the number of other tourists we came across on my fingers. However, as this area was the Soviet-NATO border, there are a large number of military installations, and there is also a good amount of strategic infrastructure, particularly dams and reservoirs, which I was unaware of before I traveled. To be honest, there’s much more immediate danger from road accidents than there is from terrorism–the mountain roads were very steep and windy, though much better maintained than their Georgian equivalents. Overall, I didn’t feel that I was in any particular danger while I was there. My conclusion was (and is) that this is probably the safest area of Turkey to visit right now, but it’s not without risks (but even home is never 100% safe).

Original Post, March 9, 2012:
My friend came to visit me here in Kakheti last weekend, and we decided to go on a daytrip to the tourist town of Sighnaghi.  We tried to go on Saturday, but had a false start on the marshrutka and got tired of waiting so we returned to my house (since then I have found this fabulous online marshrutka timetable for Kakheti (unfortunately now defunct)–would have saved us SO much time).  We almost couldn’t believe it when the marshrutka came, and were giddy to be on our way off to Sighnaghi!

It’s still rather early for tourist season, so the tourist areas were not at all crowded.  The main attraction of Sighnagi is the old wall.  Climbing it you can see for miles, and the view is stunning!  We played on the wall, admired the view, and took photos for quite a while.

429502_10150583159187051_592572050_9571243_1453232714_n

Em on the wall at Sighnaghi (photo from Marieka)

We then wandered around the old city–the architecture there really is beautiful!  Unfortunately, we then had a somewhat unpleasant visit to one of the old churches.  It is my understanding (and has been my experience) that in Georgia, as a rule, you do not have to pay to visit a church, though there are often  donation jars, and they often request that you leave a donation for the upkeep of the building, or buy the candle you will light in the church.  However, the man in the church (not a priest) seemed to disagree with this, and, as we were leaving, rather unpleasantly insisted we give him two lari because we had visited the church.

We decided not to visit the Sighnaghi museum, though I have heard it is good, and instead had Mexican food at the restaurant in Sighnaghi (there aren’t very many places to get Mexican food in Georgia, but this place is highly recommended).  We had a happily uneventful marshrutka ride home, and went back to our regular lives.

Sighnaghi has been the target of an intense campaign for the improvement of tourist infrastructure in the last few years.  There are some very obvious and helpful successes–there are signposts pointing to the various tourist attractions and “You are Here” maps throughout town.  Everything looks quite clean and well-kept, and buildings have been renovated and restored.  There’s a central marshrutka station, and public restrooms.  But some things still need work–the fantastic marshrutka schedule should really be better advertised.  Marshrutka travel is a bit haphazard, and for a major tourist destination, perhaps something a little more formal is in order (I assume most foreign tourists are expected to go by private car or chartered tour…)  Likewise, entry fees for attractions should be posted somewhere, and if entry is free no one should be demanding that visitors pay.

Despite a few hiccups, I highly recommend Sighnaghi as a tourist destination for a day–particularly if you’re interested in sampling Georgian wine (which we didn’t actually do.  This time.)

IMG_20160430_132305

View of Sighnaghi from Bodbe (photo from Giga)

Update May 3, 2016:

I’ve been back to Sighnaghi a few times now, and have a few updates to offer. I STILL haven’t been to the museum. It has been closed many times that I’ve visited. We spent the weekend there for Orthodox Easter, and stayed at Leli’s Guest House, which was a pleasant and affordable option. We ate 3 of 4 meals at the Mexican restaurant–it had closed for a while, but is back in business and serving up really delicious food. Definitely worth a stop. Our 4th meal was at the famous Pheasant’s Tears winery. The wine was very good–delicious, and not at all the usual fare. The food was good, though the increase in quality did not match the increase in price, and it seems that something bothered my friend’s stomach. The staff were all lovely–I’d definitely stop in again for some wine, but would be more conservative with my food choices.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that during the weekend days, there were huge groups of tourists rolling through town. It seemed that most did not spend the night, but rather returned to Tbilisi, leaving plenty of accommodation options, and quieter evenings.

My trip to Poti was a bit different from most of my other travels, because I was not there as a tourist, but on a business trip. As such, I didn’t have a lot of time to putter around and see the sights, but I did stay in a hotel and eat in some local restaurants. In the center of the city is a quite large and pretty-looking park, though I didn’t have time to visit and stroll around. In the park is the city’s cathedral, which was modeled after the Hagia Sophia–I’d be curious to see which iteration of the Hagia Sophia it was inspired by, so if you visit, let me know! We also drove past some buildings that were clearly once stunning, but are far past their prime. If you’re into “derelicte” photography, you might find some interesting fodder in Poti. Over all, the city was much nicer than I expected from the fact that it’s a major working port, and that everyone scoffs upon hearing that you’re visiting Poti. We had bad luck with the weather, and I’ve heard that gray days are not exactly uncommon there.

One of my co-workers arranged accommodation for us at the Hotel Prime Poti, and I was pleasantly surprised. The rooms were clean and comfortable, with good heat and hot water. I’d heard horror stories about hotels with bedbugs in Poti, so I inspected the room quite carefully and didn’t find anything suspicious. The breakfast wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was included. Rooms were 70 GEL/night.

IMG_0843

My only photo from Poti: The Hotel Prime…it’s better than it looks.

 

The food in Poti was not such a pleasant surprise, though. Knowing that Poti is in the Samegrelo region, famed for its cuisine, I had high hopes. I was sadly disappointed. Our first evening, we ate in the restaurant our local colleagues (and the Lonely Planet guide) recommended: Restaurant Aragvi. Lonely Planet describes it as “About 100m past Hotel Anchor, Aragvi serves up decent Georgian dishes amid decor of antlers and swords”[1] …I didn’t see any swords, but otherwise, I concur. One of my co-workers insisted on sampling a different restaurant the next day, so we went across the street to Restaurant Kalakuri. Our local co-workers mentioned it when pressed for suggestions beyond Aragvi, and said the khinkali there were OK. The khinkali were OK primarily because they seemed to be frozen khinkali, not homemade. The khachapuri was quite good (better than at the other place). The rest of the food was not good at all. Some of it was suffering from WAY too many greens being thrown in, and other dishes were victim of a Russian occupation–gobs of mayonnaise and handfuls of dill. We paid Tbilisi prices for this meal at 20 GEL/person; it cost twice what we paid at Aragvi (we did order more food, it’s true…but not double). I was very hungry and desperate for fruits and veggies when we returned to Tbilisi.

[1] Location 1961, Lonely Planet, John Noble, Danielle Systermans, and Michael Kohn. Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan. 4th ed. London: Lonely Planet, 2012. Kindle eBook.

IMG_0687

I first went to the Black Sea and played in the water at Anaklia five years ago (there wasn’t much there at the time), but I hadn’t actually gone swimming until this weekend. I joined some friends for a quick weekend trip to Batumi, but we actually decided to stay in Gonio, just to the South, instead. Gonio (and neighboring Kvariati–we stayed just a smidge on the Gonio side) is known for being quieter and better for swimming than Batumi, where the focus is on sunbathing, boardwalk entertainment, and seeing and being seen. The water is supposed to be clearer than in Batumi, and you could see the bottom as far out as I swam. The water temperature last weekend was perfect, and the swimming was really enjoyable.  The scenery was stunning–green mountains leading into the ocean. The beach looks like this, though, so if you’re planning on sunbathing you might want to bring something rather thick to lay on:

Gonio Beach

Gonio Beach

That rockiness continues out as far as I could touch, and I found myself wishing for the water shoes that I hated as a child but my mother made me wear when I went creeking. If you have anything of the sort, or any water-proof sandals that will stay on your foot (not flip-flops) I would strongly recommend that you throw them into your beach bag.

 

There are often jellyfish in the Black Sea, and while they aren’t usually the dangerous kind, a sting will hurt. There were a few teeny tiny little guys in the water while we were swimming. They freaked me out, especially as I felt them rather than saw them (very odd texture). They didn’t sting us, though.

We did our swimming and sunbathing at Gonio, but went into Batumi for dinners (Adjaruli khachapuri, of course) and entertainment. The Boulevard was in full swing, and there was something for everyone. Bicycle (and multi-person bicycle thingamabob) rentals, ping-pong and billiards, concerts, bars and restaurants, ice cream peddlers, statues to take photos with, a ferris wheel, dancing fountains, a “3-D Exhibition!” of the 7 Wonders of the World…plenty of options. I was actually really impressed. Though I’d been there before, I hadn’t seen it at it’s height. You could stay entertained there for quite a long time.

We also visited the Gonio fortress, which was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t know there was such a major historical site nearby. Admission is not expensive (3 GEL, if I recall correctly), and the complex, dating back to the Roman period, is extensive. There is also a small, air-conditioned museum (the air conditioning was pretty great after spending a lot of time out in the sun). The walls still look quite formidable (I don’t know how much work has been put into keeping them that way). Archeologists working at the site recently discovered some Roman mosaics, but we didn’t see them–I’m not sure if that’s because they aren’t yet on display to the public, or we didn’t make it to that section of the fortress. It’s nice to stop into the historical site and get a change of pace from the beach-centered attractions in most of the area.

My friends playing around in the fortress

My friends playing around in the fortress

For the return trip, I tried the Metro Georgia bus, and I was VERY pleased. I bought my ticket online in advance with no problems. The seats were spacious and comfortable; the entertainment system, WiFi and air conditioning were all in working order; and the whole process was easy and stress-free. The bus doesn’t have an on-board toilet, but there was a stop at the halfway point where people could use the toilets (30 tetri) and buy snacks. The route runs between Tbilisi and Batumi (and you can transfer on into Turkey or Armenia). You can also buy a ticket to intermediate stations. As I was on the bus on a Sunday night in high season, it was packed from end to end, and didn’t stop at the intermediate stations because no one was coming or going. This meant we also returned to Tbilisi a bit early than scheduled–a very pleasant surprise since I like my sleep.

Though a long distance to travel for a short trip, it was a lovely weekend getaway.

Batumi Skyline

Batumi Skyline

I’ve been to Batumi before. Twice, in fact. “Well, why didn’t you write about it, then?,” you might ask. Well…because both of my previous trips to Batumi were for less than 24 hours. Given the amount of time it takes to get to Batumi, the number of things to do there, and it’s popularity as a destination, I didn’t think it was worth writing about until I had a little more to go on.

For the weekend of Orthodox Easter (which happened to coincide with the April 9 commemoration) we had a 5-day weekend. I had thought about going abroad, or possibly even back to the US, but I decided that it would be far less stressful and far cheaper to take a mini-break in Georgia.

Due to the holidays and the off-season, though, I expected many of the attractions to be closed for at least 4 of the 5 days. It was also early spring, so I expected there would be a certain amount of cold and damp. That combination made me willing to shell out a bit more than usual to have a comfy place to hang out and read, rather than staying in a hostel or homestay like I usually do. I booked a room in the Plaza Hotel, because it was a great bargain for a place with a swimming pool and fitness center. They also provided free (pretty good) breakfast and parking which made it a good deal at the off-season prices. It’s located on the upper stories of a shopping mall, which is a bit odd, but doesn’t really make a difference in the long run. It does mean, though, that the sign outside does not say hotel anywhere (and if you go there, FYI: it’s on the opposite side of the street of where Google says). The swimming pool and fitness facilities were absolutely top-notch. They’re not actually part of the hotel, though, but a separate company in the same building who they have a relationship with. That usually wouldn’t matter, but it did mean that they were closed for two days of my stay. Sadness. There are also a few strange-to-an-American rules for using the fitness facility: you have to be checked by their doctor before you can use the facilities, and there are totally separate men’s and women’s gyms. Unfortunately the  “hotel-wide” WiFi didn’t reach the room very well, so I didn’t get caught up on my writing like I’d planned… Nonetheless, it was a comfortable and relaxing place to crash for the weekend.

View from the hotel balcony

View from the hotel balcony

All of my trips to Batumi have been by private car, which is by far the way to get there that requires the least planning. There are newly-opened stretches of highway bypassing the centers of Kutaisi and Kobuleti, which sped up the trip, and will be a great advantage for summer travel. The train, particularly overnight, is the most popular way of getting from Tbilisi to Batumi. For holiday weekends and in summer it is often sold out a few days in advance, so it’s not a good last-minute option. There are, of course, frequent marshrutkas (including overnight). There is also a new bus company with 6 departures a day in each direction. This option still seems little-known, but I hope they’re successful. My friend took this route, and said it was very comfortable and convenient. Their normal prices are competitive with the bus and marshrutka, but I saw that their office in Batumi was offering some introductory deals, which would make it a real bargain. (I don’t know how long those prices will be in effect, though.)

My first morning in Batumi I went and walked along the Boulevard, despite the blustery weather. Growing up, going to the beach was on the (Northern part of the) East Coast of the US, so I’m accustomed to cold, wind, and rain as par for the course. Many people don’t like the Batumi beach because it’s rocky, but again: that’s what I’m used to. There were very few people on the beach, which I prefer. I walked along, watching the waves, and looking at the sculptures. As I’ve said before, I really enjoy public art, so the Batumi Boulevard is a cool place to stroll.

The Black Sea (not a black and white photo, just highly gray weather)

The Black Sea (not a black and white photo, just highly gray weather)

Saturday, the only non-holiday, was the only day that I was sure attractions would be operating so we went to the Batumi Botanical Gardens just outside the city. They are a real treasure! (I’d also like to see the museums and dolphinarium sometime, but with limited time, I think I made the right choice). The territory was much, much bigger than I expected and the timing was lucky because most of the trees and bushes were in bloom (flowers will be a bit later in spring, I think). Though it was gray and dreary, the rain itself held off and the walk through the park was lovely. It’s along the coast, so in addition to the flowers and plants, there are lovely views of the sea and up and down the coast, both into farms and villages and across the bay to the sparkling skyscrapers of the city.

Rhododendron in the Batumi Botanical Garden

Rhododendron in the Batumi Botanical Garden

The city from the botanical garden

The city from the botanical garden

On Easter itself, most places were closed up tight, but I was surprised that the dancing fountains of Batumi Boulevard were still going strong in the evening, despite the holiday, the off-season and the poor weather. Though it’s maybe a bit hokey, it’s really fun to watch them. I got quite entranced by the lights and water. One upside to it is that it wasn’t nearly as crowded as in summer, so you could really see the show.

One of the main attractions of Batumi is eating Adjaruli khachapuri at Retro–widely considered the best. On this short trip, I went there twice, stopping in for some breakfast khachapuri the last day before departure. It was quite indulgent, but it was vacation! It makes a pretty good breakfast–bread, cheese,egg…it works. Since the whole idea of Batumi is that it’s at the seaside, I really wanted some fish. We found Black Sea Restaurant quite close to the fish market, and went in–the location is amazing, with picture windows looking out across the sea. They didn’t have very many options because the storms making the weather dreary were also affecting the catch, but what we got was delicious. I have no idea what it was, though. They were all small fish that were gutted and fried, and you were supposed to eat the whole thing, bones and all. That was actually OK, albeit crunchy, but it started to freak me out a little when I thought about it, so I pulled out the spines. The fish itself was really delicious and fresh, and the salad came with lovely fresh lettuce. It wasn’t a cheap place, but the food was all high quality. I had read great reviews of Ristorante Venezia inside the Intourist Palace, and Italian food sounded like a great change of pace, so I was looking forward to eating there. Unfortunately, it was the first time the Lonely Planet’s Georgia recommendations have every led me astray. The eggplant parmesan and salad were really good, but the spaghetti bolognese was so bland, and the bread was just sliced regular sandwich bread that costs 50 tetri, and the waitress brought the wrong beer. None of those things are particularly egregious, except for the fact that it was RIDICULOUSLY expensive (more than the same meal would have been in Tbilisi, and lower quality). It was 73 lari for 2 people! This was without appetizers or wine…they must have charged an arm and a leg for the bread and water, because the prices for entrees on the menu seemed normal. To top it off, they didn’t accept credit cards, which wouldn’t be unusual in a Georgian village, but in a major tourist area in a nice hotel with high prices, it’s unbelievable. It was mere luck that I had enough cash on me to cover the bill; I usually don’t carry large amounts.

The drive back was far more eventful than I had hoped. It wasn’t a surprise that there was a lot of traffic, since most of the population of Georgia had gone to their ancestral villages to celebrate Easter with their extended families and roll eggs over their ancestors’ graves. What was surprising, though, was the bumper-to-bumper traffic from Surami nearly to Gori. The two-lane two-way road had 5 lanes of cars going one way, including on both shoulders. I pity the people trying to go in the other direction! What is usually a one-hour drive took more than four! What’s worse is that it wasn’t a traffic jam with a cause; there were no accidents or working construction sites. It was caused purely by bad, selfish drivers. I’d never seen anything like it. We returned to Tbilisi at 11 PM having left Batumi at noon (we did make a stop for lunch). Usually that’s about 5 hours. It was insane.

Update: August 17, 2015. For a visit to the area during high season, including the boardwalk in full swing and a trip on MetroBus, check out my Postcard from Gonio

I finally visited the third of Georgia’s major cave cities: Vardzia (the others are Davit Gareji and Uplitsikhe). I went with a large group of co-workers and friends, including fellow blogger Jim.  He did a very good write-up of our trip, including lots of photos, so you should check out his thoughts as well. We also visited Rabati Castle on our excursion, but I’ve been there before and it hasn’t changed; still quite impressive!

Vardzia is located in the modern-day Samtskhe-Javakheti province, near the Turkish border, and not so far from Armenia. Most people visit as a day trip from Akhaltsikhe (hence the stop at Rabati) or Borjomi. We did it as a day trip from Tbilisi in a hired marshrutka. It was a long day (leading to some evening crankiness on my part), but definitely doable.

The road from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia largely parallels the Mtkvari river (which might sound familiar as it’s the river through downtown Tbilisi). The hillsides along the river are terraced. Once upon a time, the terraces were full of grape vines for wine production, but most of them have fallen into disuse. Nonetheless, it leads to interesting scenery. The tourist infrastructure at the Vardzia site itself is well-developed (paved paths, fairly clean and equipped public restrooms, gift shop, ticket booth), though it didn’t look like the surrounding villages have too much in the way of hotels or restaurants; I’ve heard of some guest houses though. The view you see of the cave city from the parking lot is quite good–it shows the full extent of the remnants of the city, which is still quite big, despite suffering massive losses in a 13th-Century earthquake.

Vardzia from nearly the beginning

Vardzia from nearly the beginning of the tourist trail

One of the things that’s interesting about Vardzia is the variety of types of rooms contained in the complex. It was truly a city, not just a series of living caves; you can see a pharmacy and dining halls, in addition to multiple sizes of living quarters. The church has some interesting paintings–they show how Georgia’s artistic tradition at the time blended multiple influences, but also had its own unique traits.

Vardzia mural

Vardzia mural

The exit from the complex is through a tunnel that would have been used when the city was inhabited. I am a relatively normal-sized modern human (a little tall, but not shockingly so) and I am nearing the maximum size to go through that tunnel; some contortions were necessary. I also wouldn’t recommend it for people with knee problems. I don’t have bad knees in general, but the uneven steps were giving me a bit of an ache.

On our way back to Tbilisi, we stopped in the village of Akhaldaba, near Borjomi, to get some dinner. The village is famous for wood-oven khachapuri, and the restaurant we stopped at (the first one on the right after you enter the village’s restaurant area from Borjomi) did not disappoint on that front. All the food was good–we also ordered BBQ, mushrooms, and some vegetable salads. They also obligingly allowed us to bring our own wine (not so unusual in Georgia), cheese (a little more of a stretch), and tomatoes and cucumbers (which they shockingly even took into the kitchen and made into salad for us). This feast was an incredible bargain at just seven lari per person!

I’ve heard others say that Vardzia is above and beyond more interesting than the other cave cities in Georgia, but I disagree on that front. Vardzia is certainly a great place to visit, but it’s a time-consuming trip. If you want to see one of the cave cities, choose the site that is most interesting and convenient for you. While each of them is different, they are all interesting and impressive. If you only have a little time in Georgia, I’d recommend seeing Uplitsikhe, as it’s easier to access, and the stories I heard about it’s history were more interesting to me personally.

Not exactly a tourist attraction; gum stuck to a tree along the tourist path at Vardzia. It looks cool until you realize what it is

Not exactly a tourist attraction; gum stuck to a tree along the tourist path at Vardzia. It looks cool until you realize what you’re looking at…